UW-Fox course shortages impede liberal arts students

Professor of English Scott Emmert teaches ENG 262, American Literature I, a core course valuable in many English programs. • photo by Vinnie Oestreich

Liberal and fine arts majors at UW-Fox are facing increasing difficulty fulfilling their programs’ core requirements amidst enrollment declines and course cancellations on campus.

In the past decade, these programs have seen a number of courses dropped. For instance, UW-Fox Valley’s history department once taught 12 courses in spring 2008. Now it offers six and lacks many of the 200-level and world history courses majors required for or otherwise useful to majors.

“The number of non-U.S., non-West survey sources—just gutted. So if you’re interested in anywhere besides the United States and Western Europe, you’re out of luck here,” Steven Sheehan, associate professor of history, said.

According to Sheehan, majors might need these courses to continue their coursework.

“More and more places require the world sequence, and [majors] would just have to do that at their transfer institution,” Sheehan said.

Meanwhile, UW-Fox’s English program has seen its share of cuts, too. It once offered two semesters of American and British literature courses; ENG 250, Intro to Literary Studies; ENG 280, Introduction to Shakespeare; ENG 278, Multicultural Literature in America and other specialized English courses. Now, with the occasional exception, the only course that is consistently available is Intro to Literary Studies.

“When I first got here in 2002, I think they taught seven or eight courses in the fall and six or seven in the spring,” Scott Emmert, professor of English, said.

The American and British literature survey, which is composed of ENG 260–1, American Literature I and II, and ENG 262–3, British Literature I and II, were the core literature courses of the English department.

American Literature I and II are each offered every other academic year on an alternating basis, requiring students to take the sequence within two years instead of one. British Literature I and II, however, no longer exist in the curriculum.

This may be problematic for English majors who were unable to take either American Literature II or I spring or fall 2016, respectively, because neither are available for enrollment in the spring.

Many UW-Fox students transfer to UW Oshkosh after their sophomore year, which requires a specific course for English majors, Introduction to English Studies, to take upper-level coursework. It is only available to UW Oshkosh students, and one of its prerequisites require an intro literature course. At UW-Fox, this would be principally American Literature I or II, which is less available than ever.

Without Introduction to English Studies or its literature prerequisite, students would be forced to delay taking upper-level English courses for two additional semesters. One to take introductory literature, and the other to take the Oshkosh-exclusive course. These students would be unable to begin the second half of their coursework until their senior year and would likely have to take additional semesters to graduate.

American Literature II and Multicultural Literature in America are available online, and they both satisfy the prerequisite, but are only available online next semester.

“It [costs] more to take them online, and it definitely disadvantages people who want to be English majors. Yes, students could take those literature courses online, but even then, [they’re] limited,” Emmert said.

UW Colleges online takes tuition separate from UW-Fox and would cost students an extra $789 to enroll in either course.

However, according to Emmert, who teaches the American literature courses on campus, offering the survey within a two-year span was a calculated decision. Emmert explained that the three tenured English professors on campus (Gillard, Allen, and himself) can only offer a total of six sections other than composition between them per semester, offering little freedom in course offerings.

“Now we’re at the bare minimum, … and if we want literature classes to run, we have to attract students,” Emmert said. “If a student took 262 one year and 263 the next, they would get the survey [and] would be more likely to enroll in courses such as ENG 250, which attracts a lot of students that aren’t majors.”

Professors on campus, in many cases, have to market their courses toward non-majors.

“We used to have a lot more English majors when I started here,” Emmert said.

Sheehan agreed, indicating the difficulty of tailoring core courses to majors on campus when very few exist.

“We have so few [history] majors here at any given time that it’s really hard to justify offering courses for majors in history. Our enrollments have always been driven from non-majors,” Sheehan said.

Because of this, professors such as Frank Zetzman, professor of art, wonder if part of the enrollment decline problem on campus stems from a stigma towards liberal and fine arts, particularly due to comparatively lower job prospects than non-liberal arts fields.

“People wonder if they want to spend that kind of money studying art. It’s a lot of subjects in the humanities that are suffering that way,” Zetzman said.  “There is not a direct job coming out of art.”

Emmert believes that many students choose to take the pragmatic route in their education.

“A lot of students are thinking [things like], ‘I love literature, but college is expensive; [I] have to be in it a long time. I don’t think I could get a job if I’m an English major, so I will go into a STEM field,’” Emmert said. “Many students have to choose their inclinations and their talents or get a job, and they choose to get a job.”

Zetzman expects the ART 201, Life Drawing, course to be canceled in the spring of 2018 and replaced by an art history course. He said that when advanced courses are dropped due to enrollment declines, it creates the worse byproduct of causing further enrollment declines because it causes majors to go to different campuses with more options.

“If [the cancelation] is for one year, that’s not too big of a deal; if it’s longer than that, I think it’ll really hurt retention of our advanced students, because it is an advanced-style course,” Zetzman said.

Keeping that in mind, liberal and fine arts faculty on campus face an arduous balance of maintaining viable courses options for majors while still marketing them largely to non-majors.

Being a tenured professor can help. Unlike adjunct professors, who are paid per course section, salaried tenured instructors are often able to offer specialized courses important for majors at no extra cost to the college.

The music program, despite having a music fundamentals course canceled, is able to offer Music Theory I through IV as well as Aural Skills I through IV for music majors. Marc Sackman, professor of music, teaches each of these courses with the exception of Music Theory III and Music Theory IV. Because of this, UW-Fox is a viable option for music majors who would like to meet many, if not all, of their core music courses before transferring.

Likewise, not only does the art program have two tenured faculty members to offer valuable art classes, but Zetzman said that because they “stack” courses, they’re able to get the larger enrollment numbers from non-majors while simultaneously offering advanced courses to majors.

“We offer first-year ceramics, second-year ceramics and even third-year ceramics all at the same time. Same as sculpture, same as painting,” Zetzman said. “There is not enough retention of upper-level sophomore students to run a second-semester drawing class as its own class, [but] most students are in the beginning-level class. That’s part of the reason we have high enrollments.”

In the English department, Bill Gillard, associate professor, stacks his Creative Writing I and II sections in the same way.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that campuses like UW-Fox are much less able to offer core courses without tenured faculty due to enrollment declines. Sackman stated that if he were to leave UW-Fox Valley, the music program would probably go away.

“They would simply say, ‘Sackman’s gone, and [now] we don’t have to offer music major classes,’” Sackman said. “So because I’m here, and I’m tenured, I’m hoping things don’t keep getting worse. Frankly, we’re holding our ground.”

That’s why marketing courses to non-majors is important. Emmert predicted that making courses that appeal to wider audiences would serve the dual function of increasing demand in liberal and fine arts departments while still enabling the small number of majors to still be able to attend and take useful courses in their field.

Emmert had some hypotheticals of how the English program could be sustained.

“We have a great program in environmental studies. The English department could say, ‘We’re going to offer nature literature. English could support [other departments],’” Emmert said. “The English department would be a service department, but we already are.”

Emmert continued to explain offering courses is “all about marketing.” By having smaller departments support larger ones, they’re in turn supporting themselves. Unfortunately, he also indicated that the courses, while still useful to liberal arts majors, wouldn’t be nearly as tailored to them as for non-liberal arts majors making up larger numbers.

“It may come down to killing one child to keep another one alive. It’s a damn shame, [but] I don’t know what to do other than save something,” Emmert said.

While this outcome could save the stability of these programs, Emmert said its fruition would be unlikely since it means faculty justifiably might not be open to making sacrifices.

“I’m there, but my colleagues, they may never be. Everybody’s guarding their own stuff. The subtext is, ‘Why should I care about yours?’ What we’re experiencing is not the norm,” Emmert said.

However, he also mentioned that a more immediate goal was for academic advisers to instill the importance of taking courses from other disciplines to better one’s own area of study.

“[Advisers] should say, ‘So you’re a business major? Let me tell you why you should join the student newspaper,’ [for example]. That would be great, and then non-journalism majors could join with the two journalism majors on campus,” Emmert said.

But in the curriculum’s current form, students are less compelled to stay at UW-Fox Valley than ever, according to Emmert.

“You already are hearing this. It’s come to Fox. ‘Get your math, and get your English and a few other things and get out of there as soon as you can because the real major is Green Bay, Oshkosh,” Emmert said.

Faculty and staff acknowledge that enrollment declines have had adverse effects on the student and campus population, but they continually work on ways to keep retention up and still recommend the value of the two year college’s general education courses to many students.

“Well sure, you can come here and take core courses, and you can take them cheaper. That will help you,” Emmert said, “but you [might] be limited in what you’ll be taking in terms of your major.”